Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Accelerando

Accelerando, by Charles Stross is an interesting thought experiment in novel form. The book is an extrapolation of Moore's Law written as a cyberpunk space opera? The story follows the family of Manfred Macx and his ex-wife/occasional dominatrix, Pamela. It begins in a near future that seems disturbingly close. Macx is a sort of altruistic patent troll, who comes up with ideas, patents them and then immediately releases them to the public domain. His reputation is his income, literally. He is also completely reliant on a system of portable memory banks, which interface with a pair of glasses that provide him with an heads-up display tracking the broad expanse of his virtual business endeavors. Pamela, is a sado-masochistic IRS agent trying to nail Macx for tax evasion.

Moore's Law

The book periodically fast-forwards through time, often describing the transition in (the incredibly useful units) megaseconds, or gigaseconds. The interludes describe the growth of artificial intelligence in the solar system as the sum total of computational processes knocked out by silicon begins to outstrip the total thinking power of biological life. People begin uploading their personalities into virtual existences, storing their entire physical, mental and emotional code for download into future bodies, etc. Death becomes obsolete.

The story goes on to track the exploits of the next several generations of the Macx family. First is the daughter, who mines asteroids around Jupiter before sending a copy of her consciousness off to explore an alien signal at the edge of the solar system. Next it focuses on the grandson who is a museum curator on Saturn after most of the inner planets have been dismantled to make clouds of spaceborn nanocomputers. Finally, it moves to the great grandson living among a bizarre human exodus out among the stars. Throughout all of this, none of the earlier generations ever disappear, and everyone is constantly shadowed by the presence of Manfred and Pamela's robotic cat, Aineko.

Unfortunately, I think that this book suffers from something fairly common in the cyberpunk genre: an overinflated sense of cool. The author seems driven to write cleverly, rather than to tell a compelling story. So, while this book succeeds at being an interesting thought experiment, I never really found myself invested in the characters or burning through pages to find out what happened next.

The subject matter is the other big problem. Exploring the end of human mortality has the unfortunate, possibly inevitable, side-effect of lowering the stakes of the story. The main characters cannot die… in fact, by the end, deaths of individual instances are almost a daily routine. Death loses its impact and its meaning. I stop caring about what happens to the main characters, because if something bad occurs, they can just reboot. I think the author tried to insert a twist into the end, but it really came across as a hybrid of a Shyamalan-ian flop and a Stephensonian non-ending. Great thought experiment. Poor novel.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, I just read this less than a month ago. I agree with most of your points, it starts off super-strong but turned sour on me as soon as we left the "five minutes in the future" section, and ended up in a weird place where we have to take it on faith that the Vile Offspring's "Economic 2.0" is somehow devastating, even though (near as I could tell) it was just High-Frequency Trading, which we already have and is stupid, but not earth-ending.


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